Killing Time

The case against him died from lack of evidence. But Texas still plans to execute Odell Barnes.

The issue of an affair between Barnes and the victim was never explored at trial, which surprises former Public Defender's attorney Nancy Botts. During her interview with Barnes just after his arrest, she recalls, he mentioned the sexual relationship with Bass right off the bat. "He said he'd done work for her around the house, and they had a thing going." Had the Public Defender's office tried the case, "that was going to be a big defense," Botts says. "Of course his prints were on the lamp. He was in and out of there all the time."

Libby Johnson, an independent forensic scientist who established the Harris County Medical Examiner's DNA lab in 1991, analyzed the sperm samples. In Johnson's view, several indicators show that Barnes most likely had sex with Bass at least 24 hours prior to her death. "If they're claiming that he raped her and killed her right away," Johnson says, "the findings are not consistent with that."

The defense had always believed that the evidence of blood on the coveralls had its own inconsistencies. D.A. Macha had argued at trial that Barnes had committed the murder by himself. While it's possible that one person might use three or four weapons to dispatch a victim, such overkill is unusual. Even if Barnes had done it without help, logic dictates that his clothes would have been covered with blood, especially given the gore-covered crime scene.

George Hixson
The defense team (left to right) - Charlton, Wischkaemper, Ward, Taylor, Milstein - scrambles to stave off the execution.
Steve Lowry
The defense team (left to right) - Charlton, Wischkaemper, Ward, Taylor, Milstein - scrambles to stave off the execution.

Yet the blood consisted of two nickel-sized stains.

Forensic examiner Jacobson says that based on his review of the evidence, he believes that at least two people were responsible for the crime, and that "these assailants would have had a substantial amount of blood on them."

The police had the same idea. As lead investigator Joe Shephard wrote in his search warrant request, "because of the violent struggle and the splattering of blood, [I believe] that the offender would have blood on his person and the clothes, shoes, hat or anything else that he was wearing at the time of the offense."

On a hunch, the appellate team sent the coverall sample to blood-preservative expert Ballard, whose credentials include working on the O.J. Simpson case. According to his September 30 report, the blood spot contained extremely high levels of citric acid, which is used in vials to preserve blood that has been collected from a body. The blood, he says, could not have come from a person bleeding directly onto the coveralls. "It's just screamingly clear-cut that it's not a natural stain," Ballard says.

The stain could have appeared on the coveralls, he says, only if the crime lab accidentally spilled the blood onto the cloth -- a major blunder that would violate a number of basic rules for handling evidence -- or if it was put there on purpose. "The only way it can occur accidentally is for the lab to have [both samples] opened up in the same place at the same time, and labs don't normally do that," he says. "Laboratories are very careful to avoid that type of thing. You can't rule it out 100 percent, but it would be extremely unusual."

As the defense sees it, Ballard's findings leave every bit of evidence against Barnes accounted for. "I don't think he's guilty," says attorney Charlton. "All the evidence they used against him was either rebuttable or false."

But with avenues for appeal shrinking with every major court decision, simply challenging the state's evidence -- no matter how effectively -- is no longer enough to delay an execution or even to ensure a thorough review. Only exposing the identity of another possible killer might be good enough. That would come next.


In April 1995 Public Defender's investigator Dana Rice received a letter from an inmate at the Wichita County Jail. Odell Barnes, the letter said, did not kill Helen Bass.

The letter came from Sandy Durant, who was housed in a cell block with several women from East Side, including Marquita Mackey. After a television report about Barnes aired one evening, the women began discussing the case. Three men killed Bass, they said, but Barnes wasn't one of them. Durant took notes, which she eventually passed to a relative of Barnes's.

Jailhouse conversations are notoriously unreliable, but that wasn't the last communiqué from behind bars. That August, Gatesville inmate Wendy Kessler wrote Rice saying she had heard similar prison talk about Barnes as early as 1992, but had recently learned new information. Former inmate Felita McKinney knew the truth: Someone else had killed Helen Bass.

Rice contacted some of the inmates named in the letters, but none would cooperate. And the last anyone knew of McKinney, she had been paroled and was living in New Mexico. Kessler's letter gathered dust, buried in the case files, until discovered by the Houston Press earlier this month.

On January 11 investigator Milstein tracked McKinney down. She told Milstein that she'd never come forward because she was terrified of the man she believed to be the killer, and feared he'd seek revenge if she told what she knew.

McKinney signed an affidavit saying that late on the night of the Bass murder she was sleeping in her boyfriend's car -- they lived in the vehicle outside a housing project -- when she awoke to voices. She saw her boyfriend, Randy Harper, talking to another man. Harper, she stated, was carrying a gun. Blood covered his shoes and pants. "Why did you have to shoot her?" McKinney heard the other man ask. Harper then got in the car and warned her not to tell anyone she'd seen him with the gun.

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